Ashley Nicole Black was four years into a PhD when she dropped out and decided to finally chase her dream of pursuing comedy. It paid off. Bit parts led to bigger auditions, and when the opportunity to write for a new political comedy show came her way, she was ready.
Black, 31, was hired as a writer on the Emmy-nominated Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the first political talk show hosted by a woman, and one that’s made history for having the most diverse writing staff in the history of late night.
I grew up outside of Los Angeles. My dad was a musician, but my parents had high expectations when it came to encouraging my career choices. It was, “You will be a doctor, a lawyer, or the president.” But what I always secretly wanted to be was the actor playing those characters on TV.
I majored in musical theater in high school. When I auditioned, I was super frustrated because I would always get cast in the comic relief role. I thought that drama was real acting and I wasn’t getting what I wanted by always being the comedian.
I auditioned for a bunch of different college theater programs [in 2003] and I noticed that all the photos on their walls of current and past productions had all-white casts. When I visited USC, I met a black woman in their theater program and said to her, “It doesn’t look like black kids are in the plays at most schools.” She was like, “Yeah, they’re not. Most schools do traditional casting, which means if there is a family, it’s going to be an all-white family. You’ll get to do a show during Black History Month.” She was super honest with me and I appreciated it.
I went to UC Santa Cruz because it was the only school I visited that didn’t do traditional casting. I created my own major called performance studies. At no time did I think I could actually be an actor. This was the 2000s and there weren’t any plus-size women of color on network television. I also never felt like I was the best actor, and I knew that with this body, I had to actually be the absolute best to break in. So I pursued a degree that would make me employable [teaching performance to actors].
After graduating in 2007, a professor at Santa Cruz encouraged me to go to grad school at Northwestern University, which has a performance studies program. I thought, Great, I’ll go to grad school, become a professor, teach actors, and I’ll still get to make theater directing or devising plays. But when I got to Northwestern, I just hated everything about academia. The environment is super competitive. I felt anxious all the time. I was always doing well, but it just hurt to do it, like when you’re staying up all night writing a paper and you’re miserable the whole time.
My parents bought me an improv class at The Second City because they knew I wasn’t having a great time. I grew up doing improv for fun, and they were like, “Here, blow off some steam on the weekends!” I instantly loved everything about it. I didn’t even think of writing as a job on my radar. But in writing sketch comedy, I finally figured out what my voice was. I always wanted to be an actor and always knew that I couldn't — until I found sketch comedy and realized that the best thing for me was the ability to write for myself and perform. Getting cast in something puts the writer, or director, or producer, or whomever in charge of your representation. As a larger black woman, my body has historically been a symbol for a stereotype. When I write for myself I can enjoy combating that, or commenting on it, or making fun of it, or ignoring it completely. But no matter what, I know that I'm in charge of how my body is being used to tell a story.
I wrote one particular piece that when I was finished I was like, I know who I am as an artist. The piece, which started as a solo show and ended up being a music video, was me playing the ukulele and singing a song that was just a list of things that are only cute when white girls do them. It goes from really silly things like matching your eyes to your shirt to stealing a car. It wasn’t shitting on white women. It was shitting on the patriarchy that keeps us all down. What worked about that piece was that it surprised people.
The master’s program was just a year and I finished the degree because that’s what I signed up to do. The school then offered me to stay and do a PhD. A smart person who recognized that she hated that year would have left academia. But being a person so full of self-doubt and so sure I couldn’t do the thing that I really wanted to do [as a career], I agreed to stay, even though I once again hated every minute of my time there.
I finished my coursework over four years, and the last thing you have to do is write a dissertation. I took a leave of absence thinking I’d start my dissertation the following year. Part of me knew by that point that I didn't want an academic life, and it didn't seem worth it to me to do a whole dissertation if that wasn't the life I wanted.
I kept taking classes at The Second City and eventually joined their [performance troupe]. I worked a series of really shitty jobs to support myself, like being a receptionist at a dance studio and answering phones at Groupon.
In 2012, I started teaching comedy writing for The Second City, and started focusing my performance goals outside of Second City and performing more around town in Chicago. I created a showcase [where actors and comedians perform for agents and casting directors in hopes of making connections and landing work]. I invited nine performers who were way more popular and exciting than me, hoping that the agents would come to see them and accidentally see me too. That first one was successful, so I did it again, this time all women, and that’s how my agent found me.
She started sending me out on auditions in Chicago, mostly for commercials. I was brought in for anything that asked for a “funny girl,” sometimes playing a 40-year-old mom and a 16-year-old in the same day. I said yes to anything that got me on camera. The first big job I got was the Christmas campaign for Big Lots! in 2013. I guess I expected to stand out like a sore thumb on television, but once they point the lights on you and edit out your pores, everyone on television looks like they belong on television. It felt really normal. The most exciting thing was that my parents saw that I could succeed in this business, and it alleviated some of their worry about my not completing my doctorate.
In 2014, I was cast on a cruise ship for The Second City. Two months into the four-month gig, I was asked to audition for an ABC pilot called An American Education. My castmate took a video of me on his phone in the middle of the ocean, and we struggled to get enough internet to send it in. They were like, “How soon can you get to L.A.?”
We ported in Barbados and there was one flight back into the U.S. I traveled for 16 hours, learned the script on the plane, landed, slept for four hours at my parents’ house, and walked into the table read. I was totally overwhelmed the whole time.
The show never got picked up so I stayed in L.A. for a few months going on auditions, meeting people, making connections. It was the first time I felt like I could do this as a career. After packing up my apartment in Chicago, I moved back to L.A. on Dec. 31, 2014. I was living with my parents and I had the very real fear that I would end up stuck there forever.
Every room I walked into [on auditions] was people going, “Oh my god, we love you! Oh my god, we love your look! Oh my god, you’re so funny!” People were having true emotions about “finding me.” But the industry doesn’t know how to sell something they haven’t seen before. So I’d constantly get, “Can you be more like Amy Schumer?” And I was like, Of course not. I’m not a size-9 white woman. But they know how to sell Amy Schumer. They weren't telling me to change my appearance. I think they meant "be raunchier." She is great at combining a feminist point of view with this upbeat raunchiness. My combo is more like feminist and upbeat, but with a deep undercurrent of sadness — arguably much harder to market.
I WAS LIVING WITH MY PARENTS AND I HAD THE VERY REAL FEAR THAT I WOULD END UP STUCK THERE FOREVER.
I spent most of my free time working on my sketch writing. I wrote pilots and spec scripts and late-night packets [samples of monologues and jokes]. I was applying to fellowships and keeping up my joke writing so that when the opportunity came I could pounce very quickly.
In August 2015, Stephen Colbert’s writers' room was announced. He had two women and no people of color. I was having this conversation on my Facebook wall with a guy who was saying, “Why are women complaining? If they didn’t get the job, it’s probably because they’re not as funny.” And so I said, “I have no way of knowing if I’m less funny than those men because I didn’t get the opportunity to apply. I didn’t know this opportunity even existed.”
A friend of mine read that exchange and he sent me an email saying, “I think you’re absolutely right. It’s ridiculous that women don’t get access, and you are exactly the person who should be applying to these opportunities, so here it is.” He had been invited to submit to Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. He was going in a different direction in his career, so he gave [the application packet] to me.
I got the packet three days before it was due. A lot of shows won’t read packets from people who don’t have representation. I was taking a huge chance to put all this work into something that might not be seen. I didn’t know that the show had created a process that hadn’t been done before. They actually wanted to include women, and people of color, and unknown writers, and comedians who didn’t have agents and managers.
A couple weeks later, I heard back from Full Frontal and was asked to do a second packet. The thing I specifically remember them saying was, “You’re getting this email because you made us laugh.” And the idea of making Samantha Bee laugh was just amazing.
For the first packet, I had to write headlines and sketch ideas on any topic I wanted. The second one, they provided the topics, and it was much harder. It required a ton more research. The hard part for me wasn’t necessarily understanding politics. I had always followed issues I cared about and had been a part of the conversation. But finding television clips to show what you’re writing about is really hard, especially for someone like me who didn’t watch much TV if it wasn’t on Hulu. I remember having 30 tabs open on my computer and watching every single political clip hoping to find someone saying exactly what I needed them to say.
After I sent in the second packet, I got a Skype call with Sam, Jo Miller, and Miles Kahn, who are the three executive producers of the show. I remember them being like, “Well, we don’t like working with assholes.” I was like, “Me neither!” Then Jo asked me a question and when I started giving a very academic answer, Sam goes, “Oh, no, no, no. You have the job. This isn’t an interview, you have the job.” They asked me if I had any questions and I was like, “Nuh-huh.” They were like, “Really, you can ask us anything.” And I said, “Oh, guys, I’m just trying to get off the phone so I can go cry.” They were like, “Oh, of course, bye! We’ll talk to you later!”
At the beginning, we didn’t have a show, so the whole staff would be together in one room pitching stories and riffing. I think I was the only writer who hadn’t written for television before. I quickly learned it’s the exact same thing as I had been doing at The Second City. You’re building on other people’s ideas and because it’s political, you have to be super willing to put your opinion out there.
On the second day, I became the person with the really unpopular opinion. We were doing a story that involved a character from a marginalized community, and the way we were framing this piece left open the question of whether or not this stereotype was true. I said, “I know I may be the only person in the room who looks at it this way, but I know someone else in the audience will for sure.” We talked through it and eventually figured out there wasn’t a way to do it, so the piece died. Everyone really loved it and here I was, this inexperienced writer who didn’t know what I was doing, and I killed it. Then my boss Jo took me aside and said, “That’s exactly why you’re here. You’re here to tell me what you think.”
I’ve never had someone tell me, “I just want you to do what you do.” I was like, Oh, I’m here because they want me. I’d also never been in a comedy environment run by women. The best joke always wins, it’s not competitive, and it’s really fun. My favorite thing is to write and perform at the same time. I get way more excited about making the show than watching myself on it. Since I'm new to being a correspondent, I'm still at the point where I'm watching and going, "Oh! I wish I'd said this a half second sooner," or, "I should have said this instead."
I had a job once writing for a comedy website previously written by all men, and I pitched a sketch where women who had been watching too much Scandal started acting like Olivia Pope in their everyday lives. The note was, “Do people watch Scandal?” So before I could even get to the conversations writers are supposed to have — is the sketch funny? Is it well-structured? Do the jokes work? — I have to explain to someone that the no. 3 show on television [at the time] exists and that people watch it. When you’re working for someone who hasn’t had certain life experiences, they assume the audience hasn’t either. So they assume some things aren’t funny before you even get to the actual comedy of it. It’s like that all the time for women.
But now it’s like I’m getting to have the experience of what it’s like to be a white man. All I have to focus on is the actual work.
Get That Life is a weekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Check back each Monday for the latest interview.
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